Press point by Prime Minister Edi Rama following the cabinet meeting in the north-eastern town of Kukes:
Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you for coming! We have been visiting Kukes over the past 24 hours to hold a series of events and the regular cabinet meeting, where we took stock of the government’s work and projects in this district, approving at the same time a new package of priority investments in Kukes designed to boost growth and jobs and turn Kukes into a reference point for development in the entire region and for the others side of the border.
One of the major, most important and strategic projects to support development and boost growth of the entire southeast Albania, but also with an indisputable impact on the national economy and to the Kosovo economy for that matter, is Kukes Airport project. We have accelerated all required legal procedures which we expect to finally conclude in the second week of December. A relatively short period of time is then needed to decide over the final contract terms and our ambition is to begin the works to construct the airport in January or within February at most.
I want to emphasize that we are not talking about opening or reactivating the existing airport, but about a completely new airport and a new terminal and a runway several hundred meters longer that meets all requirements any kind of existing aircraft, included also in the airport’s project design.
We are highly encouraged by the studies conducted by the experts of this field. Foreign expertise has been employed to develop the project, providing encouraging figures that make me more optimist about the airport’s tremendous role and impact on the economy and the area’s development. The airport is predicted to initially handle an average of 300.000 passengers a year, but its usage will rapidly increase over the next years.
Prior to the cabinet meeting, we visited the joint border crossing point we will soon establish with Kosovo. Kosovo Ambassador joined us in this visit and he said that opening of the Kukes airport will have a significant impact also on growth and development of the other side of the border and it will particularly boost tourism in the ski resort of Brezovica and this is clearly shown also in the airport’s perspective.
On the other hand, another important and long-term project with a strategic impact on the area’s future development is the project as part of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline that will supply natural gas to Kosovo. With the completion of the interconnection lines in the segments Elbasan – Fierze – Kosovo and Burrel – Skavice – Kosovo, we will have another reason to sound even more optimistic over the area’s future.
We have already concluded procedures about the mineral-rich area of Vlahna, practically the country’s second largest mineral-rich area, and we expect an initial investment value of over $15 million in the first phase that will create several hundred new high-paying jobs with monthly salaries ranging from $700 to over $1200.
Kukes’ tourist profile has always been on our government’s attention since the very first day of our second term in office in particular and we have been focused on the area of Shishtavec that is part of the development plans under the 100 Villages Programme, whereas a major tourism project initiated from a group of young local residents, who currently live abroad, in collaboration with foreign investors.
I am hopeful the project will be launched soon. The first two ski lifts will be installed soon, while work on construction of the first hotel and the access roads, due to be funded by the government, will follow shortly after. The project will combine with other expected agritourism investments under the government’s stimulating package designed primarily for the emigrants who wish to invest and transform their private homes into guesthouses or agritourism structures. Given all these, we are confident that important transformations will take place over the next four or five years, not only in Kukes, but also in the area of Tropoja and the entire Valbona Valley, where we project construction of Valbona tourist resort and where an initiative is already underway to build the first five-star hotel in Albania’s mountainous area.
Likewise, with the launch of the European financial support for Albania’s agricultural and rural development, the largest ever approved financial scheme to support potential investments in Albanian agriculture next year, we are prepared to strongly support farmers from this area, or families living in rural areas, not only to engage in agritourism projects, but also in other agro processing and production initiatives.
I am very pleased that construction works and investments in the Nation’s Highway are running on schedule. We visited and inspected the ongoing works on construction of one of the main bridges to complete the rest of the unfinished road. You know much better than me that not only the road’s sections were unfinished, but they had become very dangerous as a number of serious road accidents have taken place, while the traffic becomes heavy and congested at peak hours. The completion of these segments and the road as a whole, because the Nation’s Road has yet to complete – we will ensure a faster and safer connection between Kukes and Tirana, as well as between Albania and Kosovo, considering that works on construction of another major infrastructure project, Thumane-Kashar highway, will start soon under the government’s $1 billion infrastructural rebirth investment and reconstruction programme.
I want to add that two other projects on upgrading the road linking Kukes with Has and Tropoja will be launched soon to regenerate exactly a part of it and significantly facilitate the border connection with Kosovo. A new investment package is designed to rehabilitate many water supply systems in the area. The Kukes water supply system is still an open wound despite a series of inaugurations and investments already implemented. The same goes for water supply system in Tropoja, Krume and Zarisht. The package projects also a series of investments in building new schools not only in Kukes, but also in Has, Bajram Curri, Tropoje, as well as in the remote rural areas, including the high schools in Shtiqen, Manez, Letaj and in many other villages.
As for the healthcare infrastructure, I am pleased at having had the opportunity to closely inspect the project and ongoing works as part of the next stage designed to transform the regional Kukes hospital. A considerable investment is being implemented to ensure provision of a number of new healthcare services and integrate the maternity ward with other hospital services as part of our government’s programme to construct 300 new healthcare centres across the country within this term in office. A number of these healthcare centres will be constructed in this district.
Today we have amended the law on banning the alcohol sale to minors and prohibiting teenagers under 18 years from entering bars and restaurants during the school day. The law will be forwarded to the parliament and it stipulates severe penalties for every offender and the legislation strictly bans sale of alcohol beverages to people under 18 years, stipulating harsh penalties on every bar or restaurant owner who allows young boys and girls under 18 years to enter their business premises during the school day, in spite of whether they buy or don’t buy alcoholic beverages.
The penalties will be extreme, because we believe that closure of the entire network of sports betting shops and gambling parlours in the cities and residential areas is only one side of the medal. The other side includes the indispensable protection of teenagers from alcohol. We have reasons to believe that situation has become intolerable and drastic actions are needed in collaboration with teachers and parents, who have already expressed strong support to this initiative. Likewise, the law will categorically prohibit minors and teenagers under 18 years of age to enter night clubs except for the cases when they are accompanied by their parents, or teachers, so by individuals who are responsible for them. Otherwise, in no case they will be allowed to enter the night clubs.
The law stipulates harsh sanctions, including revocation of license for a year or permanently, making even impossible for these individuals to give their business premises on rent.
To conclude, I would like to express my appreciation for your presence and now I am ready to take your questions.
-Mr. Prime Minister, you and many other officials have often issues statements suggesting for the removal of the physical border between Albania and Kosovo, establishing joint customs service. Meanwhile, I have asked for an opinion from Mrs. Vlahutin and Mrs. Apostulova and they claim completely the opposite, arguing that customs between Kosovo and Albania will cease existing once the two countries join the European Union. How do you comment on this and which will be the future of the border between Albania and Kosovo?
If I may, I want to make another question too. Since you mentioned the interconnection line, what has been already done to address the stalemate and Serbia’s obstacles to this line?
PM Edi Rama: Thank you very much! First of all, we are not talking about customs-free Albania and Kosovo. We are talking about a customs unification and for that there is no reason to raise eyebrows. It is the right of both countries to reach an agreement. On our part, we have been always ready since the last year. The government of Kosovo wasn’t yet ready and the agreement already in place at a technical level was not adopted at a political level. However, we are making preparations for the next session of joint government meeting due to be held in Kosovo by end of November and I believe by then we will be all ready to together decide over the customs unification, which means that Durres becomes the common customs point for all goods passing through the port and heading to Kosovo.
Meanwhile, we are already building the joint customs and police border crossing point in Morine. It means, that the customs and border police services will include policemen and customs officials from Albania and Kosovo avoiding double police and customs control procedures.
This is what we are doing and what I have already told to our European friends, telling them that if Serbia too wants a customs unification with us, this is not a problem at all. So, we can have a customs unification with Serbia too, but we are going to unify the customs services with Kosovo and none will stop us on that, because they can’t and have no reasons to do so. This is totally possible, it is very simple and easy for all. We think about nothing else, but making our best to facilitate entrepreneurship and exchanges, cut the procedures without forcing people to waste time, reducing at the same time unnecessary bureaucratic procedures and this should happen in the entire Balkan region. We are in an open discussion with Serbia, Macedonia and other countries too as part of efforts to facilitate and boost regional, economic and trade cooperation among our countries. Those in Europe who tell us what we should and what we shouldn’t do have their borders completely open. They move through borders without any problem at all.
This is what we intend to do here, because based on a calculation made by the World Bank, all commercial trucks passing through the Balkan borders have a combined waiting time of over 1000 years in one year only. We need to take all necessary actions to cut their waiting time at border.
With regards to your second question, I would say that it is directly linked with the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia and has nothing to do with us or EU member states. It is part of the dialogue and the agreement that should be reached between Kosovo and Serbia. We would all lose should the dialogue fails to conclude. None will win, although some may think they are wining if dialogue ends. Indeed, only by advancing the dialogue, the Balkans would usher in a new era, including Albanians and Serbs. When I say Albanians, I mean the Albanians of Kosovo and Albanians of Albania.
-I think we all agree that it would have been much better should this investment package with an impact on the region’s major social woes and which you deem a complete package had been implemented much earlier. Do you think this package will start healing or nursing a social wound as more and more people from this region, and the young people in particular, are leaving the country? Do you think this phenomenon will end now?
PM Edi Rama: First of all, it would have been great should the Kukes football team had their stadium when claimed championship and they are not forced to travel to other country’s stadiums in order to play an international game as if being a refugee squad inside the territory of Albania. However, things are done when given that opportunity. We are now given the opportunity to build the new Kukes stadium and we will do so. We have already allocated due funding. We will build a unique stadium, meeting the UEFA standards, in order for the local sports lovers to have the stadium they deserve and for the Kukes team play the international games here in Kukes. The new stadium will serve the sports lovers and the community alike. The stadium and the airport will also significantly help the local economy. Sports and local economy will go hand in hand, especially when the city has a football squad that defends the community colours and psychologically it creates a relation. The rest of the world in not mad that invests a lot in sports. On the other hand, allow me to state that nothing unusual is helping in Albania despite the country’s knuckleheaded politics. A phenomenon that other countries have gone through is currently happening in Albania. If we are to look at the figures, no unusual exodus from Albania has been recorded over recent period. There are Albanians who leave the country. Many others return back home. The ones coming back are fewer than those leaving the country. This is undisputable. But, on the other hand, whoever leaves the country is completely in his right to try to seek and build a better life, accumulate an experience and bring back this very experience and know-how, the passion and ways to invest and change.
So, unlike all those who shed crocodile tears and who are likely the ones to be blame for the exodus from the country over the past 30 years, I belong to the group of people – I know we are not a majority – who does not see it as a tragedy. Quite the contrary, this phenomenon is part of our history. We’ve been isolated in the bunker for half a century. Thanks to the Albanian people, we do no longer live in such a bunker. We now live in an open world. So, this is not a problem at all. Our challenge is to explore ways to convince those who have emigrated to invest their savings in development projects back home. It is in everyone’s right to decide where they will live and work. But I can state that with the construction of the airport, all Kukes citizens currently living in England will be provided the opportunity to fly between Kukes and London at much cheaper flight prices compared to the current ticket prices that would force everyone think twice when traveling because of the very high flight tariffs and charges applied by the Rinas airport, as well as because of an ever increasing demand, but a small number of available aircrafts. Our challenge is also to provide them the opportunity to invest in their own private homes and launch agritourism businesses by turning these houses into guesthouses and accommodation structures as a five percent profit tax rate and a six percent VAT rate is levied on such businesses, while this area is blessed with amazing natural beauties. I visited the “Stani i Hoxhës” guesthouse and it was an incredibly beautiful place. The Swiss Alps have nothing more than this area. But of course, unlike the Swiss Alps, although this country is blessed with natural beauties, we still lack investments in the accommodation infrastructure. Let’s do this step by step and I am pretty sure we will all reap the benefits of it.
-Given that Kukes district is one of the country’s poorest regions with a high rate of net migration, you have closed down the Kukes University back in 2014. Three vocational education branches were closed this year in Kukes town, while the sports betting shops and casinos are also being closed in whole Albania. What do you plan to do for Kukes youth?
PM Edi Rama: The closure of sports betting shops is a very good thing we are doing for Kukes youth. I mean, it is not a disaster for Kukes youth that won’t be able to bet on the fate of Barcelona or Real teams. On the other hand, the closure of the universities has also been an action to the benefit of the parents and the young people to keep them away from the farces and masquerades they have already paid dearly in exchange of nothing. They have paid a lot, but failing to receive knowledge they deserve for their investment. Meanwhile, as for the vocational education, the closure of certain non-functioning branches doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be replaced by other fields of vocational education, or more opportunities for vocational education and training of the local youth here in Kukes and elsewhere across the country. So, if we closed the university and no new university will open again, quite the contrary will happen with the vocational education as will plan to further stimulate the vocational education, because there are young people who know nothing and can do nothing and that’s why they have ended up in placing bets at sports betting shops, because they have attended universities like the one that used to exist here and unfortunately have learned nothing.
We will provide them the opportunity to train and develop rightful skills to take up a job. But the current situation is a result of what has been done during the previous years. For many years, the young people were living the illusion of becoming lawyers and we had the highest number of lawyers per capita in the world, but yet with a degraded justice system. Therefore, I believe we are on the right track and I am confident that the closure of sports betting shops and casinos will be in best interest of our society and it will also have a significant positive impact on the economy, because a huge amount of money will be no longer wasted in these activities run by organized crime, but instead will support the healthy household consumption. This is a great advantage to be given to the young people.
-You mentioned several investments that are long-waited and welcomed by Kukes residents, but I want to voice a concern over the Kukes town. I don’t know whether you have been informed about infrastructure and lighting here in Kukes. The Municipality keeps complaining over the lack of due funding, claiming ‘we apply for funding, but the government declines to provide this funding.” Will the government provide even a single funding to improve the lives of the residents in this town?
PM Edi Rama: I have visited and I know Kukes for manty years now. It seems to me the town is not the same as it used to be four years ago. It looks quite different because we have provided support for the Kukes Municipality. We have provided funding for the Kukes Municipality. Of course the needs here in Kukes, just like everywhere else, are higher than the opportunities. But by saying this, I actually want to emphasize two things: first, we have supported Kukes as much as we can, but this doesn’t mean we would have the right to tell Kukes residents you should be satisfied, because they can’t be satisfied as much more is needed to be done.
Second, we will win Kukes municipality in the next year’s local polls and we will then work closely with the local authorities in order to do a lot more for this region. I don’t mean that we face problems with the current Kukes Mayor. This is not true. Kukes Mayor belongs to the opposition, but he is one of the few opposition representatives we face no problems with, just like we do with the renowned Mayor of Shkodra. But having said this, I believe that it is not just a matter of the individual, but it is a matter of a way of understanding things, a way of working about things. So, by winning the Kukes municipality next year, we will be able to do a lot more and provide Kukes with an undisputable and unmatchable alternative.
Thank you very much!